Ten Iconic European Dishes

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Ten Iconic European Dishes

“Who eats will be strong.” Estonian Proverb

If you have fantasized about eating your way through Europe or at the moment even traveling through Europe, I am with you. Each country has their own delicious food but also has one dish that people think of when they think of this country. These traditional foods are not only delectable, but they also tell the story of the country’s history,  I picked ones that I have eaten in no particular order  because I miss traveling and they remind me of countries I have visited, 

Pretzels, Germany

It takes about two hours by train to get to Schwangau from Munich. We are on our way to Neuschwanstein Castle. It was commissioned by Ludwig the Second and is the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. I buy a thick, salty, hot pretzel for the journey to add to what we have already taken from the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Train rides make me hungry.  I need carbs. I learned in Germany that pretzel (German word is bretzel) is a shape and laugen is the pretzel bread. Laugen comes in other shapes as well. I call them pretzel rolls.They are available in every bakery as sandwiches.

 Fondue, Switzerland

When I was sixteen, I took my first  European ski trip. The Alps, the majestic mountain chain that spans across France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, are a paradise to visit and to  ski. We stayed in Cervinia on the Italian side and one morning we skied to Zermatt, Switzerland. It was very exciting carrying our passports across the mountains. We went to lunch and I ate fondue for the first time. Fondue means melted in French and this one was made with fresh cheese from the mountain cows. i sat with my friends around a hot pot of melted cheese and dipped pieces of bread. The challenge was not to drop the bread in the pot. One of the customs in the Alps is to finish the fondue with an egg. The egg is dropped in the remaining cheese, mixed until cooked, and then you mix in the remaining chunks of bread. The fondue meal is usually served with sides of salad and charcuterie. It’s the perfect rich warm dish to have when you are skiing.

Stroopwaful, Netherlands 

I stopped in Amsterdam on the way to my daughter’s wedding in Africa. Noordemarkt on Saturday is part antiques market and part famers market. i watched as one of the vendors made stroopwafuls. He took a freshly baked, thin waffle, and coated it with a dark, sugary syrup.  Then he took  another thin waffle, and place it on top of the syrup. I had a momentary thought of  not getting one to make sure I fit into my dress. Amsterdam is one giant stair master and it is never just one flight of stairs so I would probably walk it off on the way back to the hotel. Fresh, hot stroopwafuls are delicious.

 Goulash, Hungary

There was something not warm and fuzzy about being in the former Soviet Union in the early 2000’s. The first thing I noticed in Budapest was that people did not smile.  Older people did not speak English so if you needed to ask a question, “ask young” I was told. They were still trying to find their way between the vestiges of communism and the new capitalism. They had missed the sixties, seventies and eighties.  The results were sometimes odd. I’m sure it is much different now.The national Hungarian dish goulash (stew with beef and vegetables)  and the lighter goulash soup were everywhere. My favorite sign was the restaurant that served sushi and goulash. I’m sure it’s not there anymore  Goulash is comfort food- a thick hearty stew. My friend ate it a lot. You have to eat goulash in Hungary at least once but try the other food as well. I personally liked chimney cake, langos (fried flatbread covered with sour cream, cheese and garlic), stuffed cabbage, sausages  and chicken paprikesh better. 

.Pastel De Nata, Portugal

You can have  pastel de nata everywhere in Portugal. Every single pasteleria (pastry shop) offered pastéis de nata (plural). The famous custard tarts made of egg, puff pastry, milk , sugar, lemon and cinnamon are the most popular sweets in the country.  After visiting the the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, in Belem. I went to the famous bakery, Pasteis de Belem. There is always a line.  The person in front of me said that the bakery began making the original Pastéis de Belém, following an ancient recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo in 1837. The recipe is a secret and so only the ones bought here are called Pasteis de Belem. The rest are Pasteis de Nata. IF you are in Lisbon, I think it’s good to try the one that is unique in the world and nothing could be more Lisbon than that. 

Pirogi, Poland

I’m not a huge fan of Eastern European food.  But I do feel a country’s food is part of the experience so you have to try it. I walked into a restaurant in Krakow where you can see the food and pointed to something and said in English, “I’ll take that.” The older woman who was waiting on me shook her head no. She did not speak English as most older Eastern Europeans do not. I shrugged and mimed that i was hungry. She laughed and gave me a plate of small dumplings called pierogi.They were filled with meat and were surprisingly tasty. You can get pierogi all over Poland with different fillings like cabbage, mushrooms, cheese, fruit and meat. They are the most affordable dish you can eat in Poland. A teenager came over to me and asked how I liked his grandmother’s pierogi. He said no one makes them as good as she does. I finished the plate and gave her a thumbs up and she laughed. 

 Apfel Strudel, Austria

I think the Viennese coffee house defines Vienna. You can sit for hours with one cup of coffee. In the old city you will find architecturally beautiful coffee houses many originally owned by pre WWll Jews. It is completely normal to sit for hours alone reading the complimentary newspapers or chatting with friends. The word is gemutlichkeit. (coziness, comfortable unhurried).  We went to Café Central home to great philosophers, poets and leaders (such as Leo Trotzky, and Sigmund Freud). We wanted to try the apfel strudel. This is one of Austria’s most popular and traditional desserts. It is thin layers of dough (philo dough-like Baklava), filled with a flavorful apple filling, served warm and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s the perfect dessert in the perfect place to linger for one more coffee and one more story before continuing your city touring.

Paella, Spain

One of my first assignments in my high school Spanish class, was to go to a Spanish restaurant and eat something. My friends and I went to a restaurant in Greenwich Village and ate paella. We learned that traditional paella is rice, beans, rabbit, chicken, sometimes duck, and seasonal green vegetables. Seafood Paella is just seafood and rice. Paella Mixta (mixed paella) combines meat from livestock, seafood, vegetables, and sometimes beans, with the traditional rice. it was a dish meant for sharing. Every family in Spain has its own paella recipe and because of the time it takes to make, it is served on Sundays but for some some unknown reason, you can always find paella in restaurants  on Thursday.  Paella originated in Valencia but since i was not going there on my first trip to Spain, I ate paella as soon as I arrived in Barcelona. It is a good dish to eat for lunch.  Don’t eat paella near the Sagrada Familia, or where they have a photo of paella outside or where a man is standing outside telling you they have paella. They know it is the only Spanish food Americans have heard of. I was lucky enough to find a family owned restaurant in Barceloneta to try this delicious iconic dish and then I walked on the beach back to my hotel.

Baklava, Greece

The first time I ate baklava, I was in my teens in Greece. I knew then that I could eat baklava every day. I have spent a few summers in Greece and sometimes I did.  It is the best known dessert in Greece, Turkey and rest of the Middle East. It is just as delicious and a bit different in all these countries.  The ingredients in Greece are phylo pastry, walnuts and sugar syrup or honey.  I like to have it with a cup of Greek coffee.  Afterwards a friend, a friend of a friend, the waiter or a relative will tell your fortune from the coffee grounds. Once the coffee is drunk, you turn the cup a few times around, while you’re making a wish. Then cover the cup with a saucer, and turn it upside down. It takes about 10 minutes to settle on the cup walls and form shapes, essential for the coffee reading revealing events of the near future but also secrets of the past.

 Pizza, Italy

My dream is to go to Sicily and eat pizza. I have not been lucky enough to do that but I have eaten pizza in other Italian cities. My daughter was doing a two week ballet program in Florence. It was a few months after 9/11 and  my first time entertaining myself in a foreign city. There was a bomb threat at the Duomo set for Easter Sunday. (There are no holidays for dancers.)  I decided to avoid the main streets and headed to Dante’s house which is a museum. Florence with its medieval buildings doesn’t look very different  from the time of Dante. Police were everywhere. To calm my nerves, I needed pizza. I walked into a pizza restaurant and heard a lot of Italian which is always a good sign in a tourist area. The availability of good pizza in Italy is impressive. I always feel that to try a pizza you need to order the Margherita. Florence doesn’t disappoint. The pizza was really good and no one set off a bomb that day. 

Fly safe,

JAZ

Post 9/11 Florence, Italy

Post 9/11 Florence, Italy

“To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature.” – Mark Twain

My daughter had the opportunity to dance in Florence during the Easter Break following 9/11. Most people were scared to travel. Airport security was a mess with very long lines.  It was my first time going to Europe in fifteen years. I fight a daily battle with anxiety but doing something for my kids always helped me push through my fears so off we went.

She danced all day and I walked around for the first time anywhere by myself. Florence was crowded. There were protests, shopping, antisemitism, more shopping, a lot of art and a looming terrorist threat at the Duomo on Easter Sunday.  Police were everywhere.

We were trying on shoes and an anti-American protest walked by. They were burning the American flag and there were a lot of people walking and cheering. I had only seen that in movies. In the post 9/11 world, we knew anything could happen. We threw the shoes and ran back to the small hotel. The owner laughed when we arrived completely shaken up. “It’s Italy. They protest everything here. Tomorrow they will burn something else.” I had a lot of anxiety during this trip. Luckily, there was so much to see and do, I had no time to focus on it. 

This was not my first visit to Florence and my number one thing to see is the Uffizi Gallery. Art haters will not agree with me. The Uffizi Gallery is Europe’s first modern museum created by the Medici family in the sixteenth century. It is the best collection of Italian paintings in the world. I forced my daughter to go there at eight am before dancing all day. In my mind, you could not go to Florence without seeing Botticelli, Raphael and Titian. There are huge lines and it is the one museum to plan in advance for. Get tickets before you go.

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The second thing to do is gelato. Art haters might make it the first thing. I am not even a fan of ice cream but eating gelato every day in Florence should be on everyone’s to do list. Gelaterie are all over Italy but it is the best in Florence. Festival de Gelato on the walking street is a good one to try. If you do not go there try to find one where the gelato is made fresh on site and not from a mix. Brightly colored gelato probably has other things in it and is from a mix. There is a lot of pre made gelato these days so do the research. 

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Piazza del Duomo is  good for people watching  but is the preferred hang out for pickpockets  so be careful.The two big sites here are the Duomo and the Baptistry. The set of doors on the Baptistry that faces the front of the Duomo was designed by Ghiberti in the early 1400s, and a young Michelangelo thought they were so beautiful that they could be the Gates of Paradise. The original panels are now kept in the Duomo Museum, but the replicas on the Baptistery are still gorgeous and attract a crowd. The Duomo’s relatively empty interior can be a bit of a disappointment  but most of the art was removed to the Duomo Museum after the 1966 flood.

If you feel like climbing and you don’t get vertigo or claustrophobia, climb up Brunelleschi’s Dome. You can also read the novel of the same name if you are interested in history or architecture. I opted for the novel and was not disappointed.

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Piazza del Signori is also a good spot for people watching and outdoor art. It is outside the Palazzo Del Vecchio and you can find the plaque where the monk Savonarola was burned at the stake in 1498.

Even if you are not a shopper, go to the leather markets. The one near San Lorenzo church leads into the Food Market which is always fun. There are also a lot of pickpockets here while you are focusing on gloves or olive oil so watch your things.

I don’t think there are any deals to be found  anymore for Italian designers like Gucci and Prada though filing for the VAT tax helps. There are interesting stores from young  designers that we do not have here that are more fun to look at.

I am fascinated by Dante Alighieri and I had plenty to see in Florence. There is a statue in his honor in Piazza Santa Croce, a museum dedicated to his life and works (including The Divine Comedy), and verses inscribed on various streets in the historical center.  Santa Margherita de’ Cecchi is  the church where  Dante fell in love with Beatrice which is the passion that is thought to have inspired much of his work. I spent Easter Sunday with Dante avoiding the crowds at the Duomo if the terrorist threat turned out to be real. It was not.

We had Easter Dinner at Il Latini, a famous Florentine restaurant known for its Bisteca Florentina. Ristorante del Fagioli is also good and it displays certification for sourcing the original Chianina breed of cattle, where bistecca fiorentina should come from. They are still among the best restaurants in Florence.

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The city is full of carbs. I ate either pizza, pasta or panini daily. Sometimes I had all three and I loved every second of it.  Since I walked all day long, I did not gain any weight. Don’t try this if you live in LA and sit in your car all the time.

Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and  there are many famous people buried here. In Santa Croce, you can find Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Ghiberti and Michelangelo.There is an honorary tomb to Dante.

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Adjacent to San Lorenzo is the Medici Chapel. The wealthy Medici family sponsored the great artists of Florence and Michelangelo statues adorn the tombs. The Lorenzo Library with the great Michelangelo Staircase is also worth a visit.

Watch the sunset on the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio like the Medicis did or see it on one of the less crowded bridges.The Ponte Vecchio has survived floods and World War ll making it one of the oldest bridges in Italy.

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The Renaissance capital of the world  also has a lot of Modern and Renaissance street art so enjoy it as you walk around the city.

The Bargello Museum which is housed in a former prison has some incredible early Michelangelo works and Donatello’s David. It is much less crowded than the Uffizi.

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The Salvatore Ferragamo Museum  is a fashion museum dedicated to the life and work of Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. The museum has 10,000 models of shoes created and owned by Ferragamo from the 1920s until his death in 1960 The museum is housed in the historic Palazzo Spini Feroni, which was purchased by Ferragamo in the 1930s. If you like shoes and need an art break, it’s a fun thing to do.

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The Pitti Palace is a  very large Renaissance Palace  on the South Side of the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio.  It was started by Filippo Brunelleschi  for Luca Pitti but was eventually purchased by the Medici family and finished by other architects. Today, the palace and the Boboli gardens house the Palatine Gallery, the Silver Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Costume Gallery, the Porcelain Museum and the Museum of Carriages.

The collection of the costume gallery comprises six thousand items including costumes dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries, theatre costumes and accessories. It is the only museum of the history of fashion in Italy and one of the most important in the world. The Palatine Gallery has an impressive collection of Titian,Correggio, Raphael and Rubens. It is second only to the Uffizi.

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Piazza Del Michelangelo is where everyone takes their view of Florence  picture from. There is another fake David in the square.

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The real David by Michelangelo. is in the Galleria dell’Accademia and has a high entrance fee. David is the only thing worth seeing here. I had to see it but if you don’t, you can be happy with all the fake Davids around the city.

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No matter how much time you spend in Florence, it never feels like it is enough. There is always more to see and do.

Ciao and fly safe, (not my photos – mine are in storage.) 

JAZ